Maggie Q has the title role as an avenging assassin in "Nikita." (Jan Thijs / The CW )
Having wrung what girl power can be gained from psycho-sexual manipulations ("Gossip Girl," "90210") and monster love ("Vampire Diaries"), the CW is getting physical. Though aimed at slightly different demographics, "Hellcats" and "Nikita" both celebrate long-limbed, well-toned females vigorously kicking butt.
Starring Disney alums Alyson Michalka and Ashley Tisdale, "Hellcats," which premieres on Wednesday, is an energetic and occasionally sophisticated fish-out-of-water mash-up of "Glee" and "Bring It On" with top notes of "Flashdance," aimed squarely at audiences perhaps too young for "Gossip Girl" but seriously too old for " Hannah Montana."
Michalka, late of "Cow Belles" and the tween pop duo Aly and A.J., stars as Memphis law student Marti, a girl so sassy and independent she is not afraid to combine pre-Raphaelite hair and bicycle gloves or to trash talk cheerleaders while wearing a T-shirt cut so high above the midriff that it must have required an act of Congress, not to mention a lot of toupee tape, to keep it in place. Just imagine Marti's inner turmoil when, after losing her scholarship due to hazily explained budget cuts, she must audition for that very same cheerleading squad, the Hellcats, to realize her dream of becoming a lawyer.
This requires several scenes so reminiscent of "Flashdance" — Marti may stop short of being a welder but she is to classical cheer what the film's also ringleted Alex was to classical dance — that one hopes future episodes include a role for Jennifer Beals (although she might want her hair back.)
Despite this silly and derivative setup, the pilot is actually a lot of fun. The performances are uniformly good and there are moments of promising depth to balance all the peppy hair-swinging, abs-flexing dance numbers. Yes, Marti finds herself in tedious mean-girl conflict with the girl she replaces (Heather Hemmens), and then there's that requisite romantic triangle involving Marti's longtime male best friend (played by Matt Barr and named, apparently, for famous pacer horse Dan Patch) and Lewis (Robbie Jones), her new hot cheer partner.
But she also has a surprisingly complicated, co-dependent relationship with her mother ( Gail O'Grady), who has a drinking problem, and Marti's new Cheertown roommate Savannah (Tisdale) may be predictably perky and A-type, but she also actually seems to understand the requirements of teamwork. I must admit I'm intrigued by any show that showcases teamwork's necessary companions —patience and forbearance — while also evoking "Flashdance."
Teamwork is also the theme of "Nikita," which premieres Thursday night, although a slightly more fatal, and PG-13, variety. Yet another retelling of the sex-equals-death story of a gorgeous but troubled girl turned deadly assassin against her will — a narrative that endlessly fascinates film and television executives for reasons that don't bear discussing.
But this "Nikita" takes things one step further. The pilot follows the now familiar trope of a young woman, played by Lyndsy Fonseca, being "saved" from life in jail after a (possibly trumped up) murder conviction by Michael ("ER's" Shane West) who informs her that she is now officially dead but can find a second more meaningful life through a shadowy agency called Division. There she, and a surprisingly large number of good-looking and similarly resuscitated recruits, are taught to be well-dressed, well-mannered, merciless government killers.
But this is Alex, not Nikita, because Nikita ( Maggie Q) is on the other side of her own narrative. She has escaped the clutches of Division, which murdered her boyfriend when he became more than just a cover, and has now become vengeance with her shining sword (or high-caliber pistol and really good martial arts training) out to avenge her lover's death and put an end to this whole gorgeous-assassin factory.
If, after two feature films and a TV series, we must give the Nikita tale another try, it's not a bad twist — and it may follow quickly enough on the heels of the somewhat similarly themed "Salt" to benefit from Angelina Jolie pixie dust. But the track records of recent manipulated-fight-girl shows — "Dollhouse" and "Bionic Woman" come to mind — are not promising.
Q, a Jackie Chan acolyte who does her own stunts, provides some sizzle, but her emotions run that famous distance from A to B, as do virtually everyone else's. This is the intrinsic problem with shows revolving around characters stripped of all emotion; it's difficult to make cold-blooded and calculating people interesting and empathetic, and yet it must be done. Because fight scenes will take you only so far.
Especially when there are no big dance numbers.